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Kevin Gray and Afshin Kahn

Improving Chemotherapy Treatment to Reduce Side-effects

Two WSU doctoral graduates partner to become entrepreneurs

By Kakali Chakrabarti

When someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer, it can change your life perspective — and sometimes your life projectory. For Kevin Gray, a WSU doctoral graduate, the diagnosis drove him to a new research passion and creation of a biotechnology company to develop novel cancer treatments. Read more.

Nathan Grant

Research to Feed the Future

Doctoral student Nathan Grant joins the WSU/U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative through his research

By Cheryl Reed

Passion and compassion aren’t synonymous, but in the case of molecular plant sciences doctoral student Nathan Grant, the two provide the synergy for his research and future career goals. Working side-by-side with his faculty mentor, Dr. Kulvinder Gill, Nathan is helping develop a heat-tolerant variety of wheat that could be grown in some of the world’s most hot and hunger-challenged regions of the world. Read More

Derick Jiwan

The Heart of WSU’s Entrepreneurial Spirit

WSU post-doc Derick Jiwan and team are turning byproducts from the Greek yogurt industry into a healthy drink—while realizing a higher purpose for their scientific research

By Kakali Chakrabarti and Ruth Williams

From left: Henry Baker, Andrew Jaboro, Jose Orenday-Ortiz, Alex Wu Hagen, Derick Jiwan

The Greek yogurt industry produces thousands of gallons of acid whey – the unused liquid drained from yogurt to make it creamy. The cost of handling and disposing of all the whey, although rich in nutrition, has been a major expense to the industry—so researchers have been looking for a way to convert the whey into a useable and profitable product. A group of WSU students and scientists may have found the answer.

Team Semplice, led by WSU postdoc Derick Jiwan, began as a food science project to study whether or not these yogurt byproducts could be recaptured to make a nutritious and sustainable drink. The proprietary information is protected by WSU and in the early stages of finding its way to the marketplace.

Team Semplice brought together a diverse team of postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate students studying marketing, food engineering, bioengineering, and communication.

“The benefit of having such a diverse team is that we have every expertise needed to take on an entrepreneurship endeavor—scientific knowledge as well as marketing and communication skills,” says Jiwan. In 2016, the team was part of the WSU NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) three-year grant, and in April, 2017 won first place in the Carson College of Business’s Annual Business Plan competition, taking home $15,000. Team Semplice found further accolades as second place winners at the Idaho Pitch Competition, and was invited for a Lightning Pitch round at the 2017 CleanTech Innovation Showcase.

The spirit of innovation

Jiwan earned his Ph.D. from WSU in molecular plant sciences in 2011. While working on his dissertation, he participated in a number of service-based agricultural research projects and worked with several different teams to develop trade secrets and proprietary information. In 2012, Jiwan helped his faculty advisor, Amit Dhingra, form a biotech agricultural biotechnology company that provides true-to-type plant rootstock to growers.

Through this experience, Jiwan caught the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2016 he teamed up with Charles Daiko, who was a food science graduate student working on the yogurt byproduct concept that eventually became Semplice. To know whether the product was palatable to consumers, Team Semplice conducted a consumer taste panel with several hundred people. With highly favorable responses, the team realized their product could have real potential.

Team Semplice has received significant support from the WSU Office of Research and Office of Commercialization in getting funding and other scholarship opportunities, and has received recommendations for taking the product to the next level. Semplice is the exclusive licensee of the proprietary material owned by WSU.

Semplice currently uses WSU’s Food Science Department’s USDA certified kitchen, and rents the Ferdinand’s Ice-cream Shoppe facility when they need more space. They have found great support and enthusiasm from other departments in the university as well, such as Carson College of Business, Voiland College of Engineering, and Murrow College of Communication, which have helped them with marketing and public relations, and provided them with opportunities to help take the product to next stage.

More than a start-up

Dhingra required Jiwan to work with undergraduate students while he was a graduate student, which gave him practical experience with supervision, administration, teamwork, and time management. “There is no course on time management, teamwork with students, interdisciplinary teamwork, or work-life balance, so this experience was really valuable,” says Jiwan.

As a result of that experience as a doctoral student, Jiwan hopes to use Semplice as a model to train undergraduates in developing leadership skills while giving them work experience in areas outside their core degree. “Such experiences make students more marketable,” he says.

As Jiwan looks back on his doctoral work, he values an adviser who pushed him to break the disciplinary boundaries and fulfil the larger purposes of scientific research. “Dhingra helped me realize that the purpose of scientific research is to help people,” says Jiwan. “If research is limited to labs or scientific publications, it might miss out on a significant impact in the world.”

Jiwan believes entrepreneurship requires leadership and a desire to contribute to the larger community. An idea may not be Nobel Prize-worthy, but may still have an impact on a smaller scale.

“My experiences taught me that ideas are great, but one also needs a great team, great support and great mentorship,” says Jiwan.  “Entrepreneurship is both a science and an art.”

In addition to his business venture, Jiwan works in the wheat quality lab for his post-doc in crop sciences, where he uses genomic data to help breeders and farmers reduce the time and energy they spend in the land by integrating quality trades. He has also developed a project in Colombia, trying to synthesize academia and industry so that they can support each other to solve problems like oil palm disease and cocoa disease. He is organizing a workshop in 2018 to bring more government support into this research and develop private-public partnership models.

“I think WSU is doing a great job encouraging students to not just research and publish, but to also commercialize,” says Jiwan.  “The emphasis on interdepartmental research and support for commercialization will create more WSU brand loyalty, and when these students become alumni, they will be motivated to give back.”

Nancy Carvajal Medina

Working to break stereotypes around homelessness and build more empathetic communities across the Palouse.


By Kakali Chakrabarti

Nancy Medina smilingHomelessness is a monumental, worldwide problem. According to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 549,928 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2016. The majority (68%) stayed in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens, and 32% in unsheltered locations. More than one-fifth (22%) of homeless people were children below 14 years.

Nancy Carvajal Medina, a fall 2017 doctoral graduate in the Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education (CSSTE) program in the College of Education has been working to develop more understanding and empathy towards the issue through her work at Washington State University and beyond.

Early inspiration

With a B.A. and M.A. in language teaching, Nancy taught applied linguistics, critical thinking, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) didactics, and EFL research methods to pre-service teachers for 10 years in Tunja Boyacá, Colombia, where she spent the majority of her life working and studying. She also taught at the master’s program in Language Teaching at Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia-UPTC. In 2010, she started exploring possibilities of academia-community collaboration to solve real life problems in Tunja, which was experiencing steady displacement and rural-to-urban migration of youth, children and families due to violence and capturing of farmlands by illegal arms groups. With the help of a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Juventas, Nancy supported its initiative to start a language school, and engaged pre-service student teachers through a volunteer program to teach the displaced youth and children on weekends.

“I founded the group Knowledge in Action (KIA) with the vision of making bridges between academia and the community,” says Nancy. “This vision is grounded in action. When I invited the members of KIA and other EFL pre-service teachers to volunteer and work with Juventas, I told them, ‘you will not get any grade, you will not receive any payment or any reward in exchange for this work, but you will fulfill your social responsibilities as educators.’”

During her work with Juventas, Nancy met a Fulbright assistant and was inspired to apply for a Ph.D. in the USA. She was one of six people out of about 300 applicants to receive a Fulbright scholarship in 2013 from Colombia in the modality Fulbright for the Regions.

Life at WSU

For her doctoral research, Nancy was specifically looking for a program that emphasized critical thinking rooted in action. She chose the WSU College of Education for its emphasis on critical studies and social justice, which enables students to critically reflect on social justice issues through a variety of methods, thereby developing an understanding of alternative narratives.

Nancy recalls the first class she took at WSU. People were introducing themselves with various labels such as sex, gender, race and ethnicity. “This is when I could only think about myself as a human being under construction,” says Nancy, who thinks these labels are peripheral, visual, and constraining as there are multiple assumptions and expectations attached to every label. “I respect people’s ways of self-identifying. I understand the political and cultural ground on which they do it. But personally, I believe no label may be ascribed to reflect the complexity of humanity. More than labels, my words, actions and relationships are what really defines who I am and who I may become. Society expects people to self-impose these labels on them. So I wanted to go under the skin and find ways to connect us all through our understanding of humanity.”

Discovering identities “Under the Skin”

Growing up as a Mestiza, the dominant ethnic group of Colombia, Nancy did not face the stereotypes and discrimination tied with race and ethnicity, but she did face social discrimination as a woman, and fought her way to pursue post-secondary education. These complexities and multiplicities of identities were the inspiration for the workshop series she conceived and titled, “Under the Skin,” a dialogic community that offers a welcoming space to share stories, transform interactions, and dismantle stereotypes and labels, thus facilitating personal and community healing processes.

“People have called this space home and a safe space. That is a very meaningful connection in times where the political climate is reducing the spaces to feel safe and be yourself,” Nancy explains in her dissertation.

So far, she has organized 11 interactive workshops on various themes, such as painting, writing, photography, yoga and meditation. “People were ready to be open and vulnerable. We heard others’ stories, hugged each other and cried for them, although we didn’t really know them. People rekindled their desire to paint, draw, sing, or dance.”

Houseless, not homeless

These experiences with stereotypes and identities made Nancy further think about her work with the displaced youth and children in Colombia—a work she could not continue due to financial and administrative constraints. She spent her first year at WSU trying to understand meanings and contexts of displacement in the US. She found two shelters in the Pullman-Moscow area that offer services to unstably housed people, and has been working and interacting with the people in Sojourners Alliance, in Moscow, Idaho for almost three years now. To gain their trust and confidence, she lived at Sojourners Alliance for five weeks.

“It was then the people grew to trust me and share their stories,” she said.

Nancy says that the root causes of homelessness are not always associated with individual responsibilities, but often with structural causes such as a lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, increase in rent prices, etc. Some people might have made decisions in their lives that led to homelessnesss, but those stories also have layers of complexity.

“My work concentrates on breaking the stereotypes around homelessness to raise awareness that homelessness is not always a choice, and homeless people, instead of being stigmatized, should be offered a second chance. The word house is about a structure, whereas home is about family and emotions.These people lack a house, but not necessarily a home.”

Houseless testimonials

Nancy organized three workshops in August 2017 with the support of Neil Public Library in Pullman titled, “My story is the only thing I own. Houseless’ Testimonios of Survival and Resistance.” The workshops were an attempt to engage the larger community in focused dialogue and to develop empathy among those who have not experienced oppression towards houseless people. The testimonials featured stories of middle class people, many of whom do not fit into the stereotypes of drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill or the criminal, who ended up experiencing homelessness due to different social circumstances.

“Sometimes, these stories are complex and difficult to understand when you have lived in your own world of privilege,” says Nancy. “In the last workshop of the series, one person shared that she had met two middle class families who had lost everything overnight. Their experience was similar to the stories we heard in the workshops. She mentioned that discussing some of the issues about housing instability in the workshops allowed her to empathize without being judgmental.”

Nancy considers this a unique opportunity to dismantle stereotypes and understand the intricacies of housing instability.

Through community-engaged work, academia can help remove the stigma around homelessness, and other such multi-layered complex issues in society. Nancy is grateful to the houseless people who shared their stories, the administration of the homeless shelters, and her advisor Dr Pam Bettis in the College of Education for their support of her work. She plans to return to Colombia to continue her work with the issues of homelessness and help bring about long-term positive changes in society.


Graduate student Kakali ChakrabartiDr. Kakali Chakrabarti is a fall 2017 graduate of the Murrow College of Communication and a research assistant in the Graduate School.

Ruby Siegel

Doctoral student Ruby Siegel jumps ahead to a new career opportunity later in life

By Ruth Williams

Spokane native Ruby Siegel is not your average Washington State University Ph.D. student: she spent 17 years working in a clinical laboratory and raising a son between earning her degrees. At 43, she’s older than most of the other students in her research program in pharmaceutical sciences in the WSU College of Pharmacy. One of the youngest of her fellow students is only 20, and Ruby jokes that her son is older than that.

Returning to school after investing so much time in her career wasn’t easy. “Planning ahead” was her theme as she looked at schools, assistantships, and degree programs. One of the biggest hurdles she found in transitioning back to being a student was the pay cut— the graduate student stipend she earns now is considerably less than her recent salary as a lab supervisor.

So why go back to school at all? Ruby has her eyes set on becoming the director of a clinical lab, and in order to reach that goal she’ll need a doctorate. Beyond that initial motivation, however, other possibilities may become available: earning a doctorate will open the door to different areas in the pharmaceutical industry, new and exciting fields of research, or even a job in academia.

Her advice to other adult learners thinking of pursing graduate degrees is to just jump in, take the first step, and move on from there. “It’s easier to steer a car that’s moving than one that’s standing still,” she says. “You can get caught up in the details of planning, but just take that first step and it will all fall together.”

Going back to school, Ruby says, has helped her realize that she was becoming intellectually stagnant in her field. She’s had to work hard, reviewing basic biochemistry and molecular biology, while switching back to the mindset of a student with homework and assignments. At the same time, she says she has been “craving to learn” and didn’t realize it. “I feel like a battery being recharged,” she says with excitement.

Since she was awarded her master’s in 2000, there has been an exponential growth of knowledge in the fields of histocompatibility (a field of medicine that matches organ and marrow donors with possible recipients and identifies why and how an immune system may reject a transplant), genetics, and immune responses. Ideas that were just surfacing as theories when she first studied them are now being utilized in novel laboratory tests and treatments.

She brims with enthusiasm when talking about the research opportunities available to her, the faculty she’s studying under, and even the laboratory facilities on the WSU Spokane campus.

At the moment, she’s studying retroviral vectors under Dr. Grant Trobridge. Research in his lab aims to improve retroviral vectors which can be used for gene therapy for patients who have inherited a defective blood or immune gene. The viral vectors can permanently insert correct copies of the gene into autologous (“self”) blood stem cells from the patient, which can then be transplanted back into the patient to “reboot” their bone marrow and blood system with the correct gene. If it sounds a bit like science fiction, that’s because it’s still an investigative therapy. “It’s not used routinely to treat patients yet. Laboratories like Dr. Trobridge’s are still working out safety issues,” clarifies Ruby. Occasionally, the retrovirus gene insertion disrupts a necessary gene or activates unwanted genes.

Ruby’s program will allow her to do more than one rotation before choosing her PhD project. She is also interested in working in Dr. Salah Ahmed’s lab. His research is focused on the inflammatory processes and tissue damage in rheumatoid arthritis: how it occurs, and which genes or proteins to target for therapy.

These two labs appeal to her because her master’s degree is in biotechnology and much of her previous work experience had to do with to transplants and the genetics of immune responses.

She has a practical attitude when facing setbacks and discouragement: “You have to keep your eyes on the ultimate goal,” she says. “In scientific fields, you want your experiment to work, but you can learn from negative results as well. A number of major scientific discoveries were accidents or unintended results. I will learn something whether my experiment works or not.”

Nicole Kelp

Finding Your Graduate School Niche


By Ruth Williams

Nicole Kelp, a recent graduate of the Biomolecular Science PhD program.

Earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees from one institution is more common now than ever before for a variety of reasons. While it does depend upon the student and the student’s research and connection with faculty, sometimes completing all degrees at the same institution has major advantages. Washington State University graduate Nicole Kelp is a good example.

Nicole is a recent graduate of WSU’s Molecular Bioscience Ph.D. program, and currently works as an instructor for the university. Her doctoral research focused on uterine biology, specifically tracking one particular protein and linking it to miscarriage, infertility, and uterine cancer. “I think it’s really important for students to try things outside of where they thought they were going to go, because I never thought I would want to study uterine biology, but I found it fascinating,” says Nicole.

Nicole came to WSU from Boise, Idaho, right after high school because of the STARS program (Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies), which paid her a stipend in exchange for lab work. The STARS program in the School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB) was created to facilitate a seamless transition from high school to graduate level courses in the School of Molecular Biosciences or Integrated Physiology and Neurosciences. Participants are usually incoming freshmen interested in pursuing graduate degrees in the sciences. The program was designed by SMB faculty at WSU to specifically help highly motivated students jumpstart and accelerate their academic careers through faculty mentoring, scholarships, and summer job opportunities. Students have the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, genetics and cell biology, microbiology, or neuroscience in as little as three years, and a doctoral degree in as little as seven years.

Consequently, Nicole has earned all of her degrees at WSU, in part because of the STARS program, but also because of the many faculty members who mentored and encouraged her along the way. According to her, there are a number of advantages to remaining at an institution to earn your graduate degree—first and foremost is the networking.

“You’re already known in the department, so there may be more opportunities available to you,” says Nicole.

During her time at WSU, Nicole worked alongside professors Jim Pru and Margaret Black, as well as others. Working in different labs alongside different professors helped her explore various interests. As an undergraduate, she initially wanted to focus on cancer research, but used rotations to her advantage to gain experience and find her niche.

Graduate School Funding

Like most graduate students at WSU, Nicole was able to fully fund her degree through a combination of grants and assistantships. Through grants, scholarships, and assistantships, most graduate students are able to find some type of funding to help pay for, or fully fund, their graduate education. At the start of her graduate career, Nicole earned a National Science Foundation grant that gave her three years of funding. She attributes her grant award to the help of her faculty mentors in outlining her research and gathering preliminary data. Since earning this grant, she has helped with several of the professional development seminars sponsored by various graduate programs on the WSU campus.

“The funding was very helpful because I didn’t have to teach for the first three years I was in graduate school. I really liked [being a TA], but time-wise it was really nice to be able to focus on research,” says Nicole. “It also enabled me to be more active in serving the community and doing other things.”

Graduate Student Advice

As tempting as it is to make research the number one priority in life as a graduate, Nicole suggests students find a balance. “It’s really important to not have your entire life be your research, to have other things, whether it’s hobbies, a community, a religious community—something that’s very important to you that can be your focus when things aren’t working.”

Nicole experienced a nine-month period where her research was nearly at a standstill, and says that her faith community was an enormous help during that time. “Also, keep pushing through—be diligent and perseverant and apply all the skills you learn to whatever career you pursue,” says Nicole. “Once you add all those skills to something you are passionate about, that will lead to a lot of fruit. At the same time, don’t let perfectionism ruin you.”

What’s Next?

Generally, recent Ph.D. graduates—especially in the sciences—go on to work on post-doctoral research and become tenure-track professors in their field. Nicole says she doesn’t plan to follow that track at the moment. “Right now I’m really happy teaching at WSU and working at my church doing leadership development,” she says. “I’ll continue to grow—there’s always professional development—and become better at what I do. Both of my jobs force me to think and stretch myself, and at least right now, if this is what I was doing for the rest of my life, I’d be really satisfied.”

If you’re interested in pursuing a graduate degree, contact the WSU Graduate School for a consultation at 509-335-6424,, or

Graduate student Ruth WilliamsRuth Williams is a doctoral student in mathematics and a research assistant in the Graduate School

Sylvia Omulo

Seeking Solutions to Antibiotic-resistant Bacterial Infections

Recent doctoral graduate Sylvia Omulo is working with a team of WSU scientists to stop the spread of untreatable infections.

By Cheryl Reed

sylvia omulo in laboratory

Recent news reports have focused public attention on the alarming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals. But the threat is truly global. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a focus of research at the Paul. G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University, and was the topic of discussion at the WSU Innovators lecture series in Seattle on April 18, 2017.

“The Innovators event highlighted how WSU’s research in Africa impacts health in the U.S.,” said Omulo, a recent doctoral graduate of WSU.

Antimicrobial resistance is favored whenever antibiotics are used, but unregulated use and unsanitary living conditions contribute disproportionately to this problem. Curbing the resistance challenge requires a global team of experts. Scientists at WSU are working with global health agencies in East Africa to understand the emergence and spread of AMR and to develop solutions.

Omulo was one of the panelists at the Innovator lecture series. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science and technology from Egerton University in Kenya, and her master’s degree at the University of Leeds in the UK. While working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KEMRI/CDC) program, she met WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health scientists Guy Palmer and Terry McElwain, who were in Kenya to roll out a population-based animal syndromic surveillance project.

In August of 2011, Omulo visited Washington State University for the first time while attending a quality management systems training by USDA and WSU. At that time, Omulo was transitioning to a new position within the KEMRI/CDC program after earning her master’s degree.

“While on a tour of WSU’s Pullman campus, Terry McElwain asked me if I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D. here” says Omulo. “So when I finished my obligation to the KEMRI/CDC program in August 2013, I came to WSU to begin my doctoral work in Doug Call’s laboratory.”

Omulo has been researching AMR for her doctoral dissertation, focusing on risk factors and control policies for AMR-driven infectious diseases within crowded urban communities in East Africa.

Her dissertation research investigated the contributions of sanitation, environment, and antibiotic use in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. She found that when the environment is saturated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is hard to understand the contributions of various factors, including the role of antibiotics.

After her graduation ceremony in May, Omulo will continue her AMR research in Kenya as a WSU post-doctoral fellow. Her research as a post doc will advance the work of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health and help solve the critical problems facing the world, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases. She feels well prepared now to understand community priorities and to develop and design interventions to improve health in her home country.

In 2016, Omulo received the Epidemiology and Population Health Summer Institute at Columbia scholarship, and the Association for Faculty Women’s Karen DePauw Leadership Award.

She is glad she chose Washington State University for her Ph.D. program.

“As a PhD student at WSU, I received excellent faculty mentorship. My advisor and doctoral committee continuously held meetings with me about my research proposal and prepared me well for my preliminary exams. I did not realize what impact that preparation had until I got back to Kenya to conduct my research. My previous colleagues told me that something about me had changed—I had become a confident leader.”

Omulo is not only a scientist, but a talented artist as well. She won national awards in Kenya for her art, some of which paid her undergraduate tuition.

“I draw, paint, and hand-craft greetings cards,” she says. “If I hadn’t pursued science, I would have studied the arts.”

“My time at WSU has been a rewarding experience. The academic environment here provides conditions that are highly conducive to learning. I can credit some of my successes as a student to the Pullman campus location—fewer external distractions and more student-oriented activities.”

To become part of WSU’s research, visit to find a graduate program that fits your talents and interests.

The Calculus of Grace

By Brian Charles Clark

For Valerie Cheathon, it all adds up. She plans to earn a master’s degree in applied math so she can make movies. Sitting in the Compton Union Building on the Pullman campus of Washington State University one morning, she clearly sees the world as a weave of numbers—and stories.

“I like applied math. You can help people with math. You can solve problems. Like, how much air conditioning is needed,” gesturing at the expanse of the CUB, “that’s a math problem. The doors are nodes and the connecting hallways get different values depending on width, length, and so forth.”

The other thing Cheathon likes about math is that it is “not up for debate.” There are no alternative facts: “You either get the answer, or you don’t. I love writing too, but I rarely show it to other people because it’s your baby. And when they say, you should put a pink dress on that baby and not a blue one—well, it’s mine! But with math, you don’t really have that. You can discuss the ways you got to the answer but, pretty much, there is a single answer we are all gunning for.”

The Kids are Alright

But life is not like math. Answers are often hard to come by, and logic is nonexistent. Her kids, though, “pretty much saved my life,” she says. Like a lot of us, Cheathon had a rough few years in her late teens and early twenties.

“After my parents divorced,” she says, “I kind of spiraled through a lot of bad choices.” But after first Benjamin, and then her daughter, Kennedy, were born, she decided, “I had to have more money per hour!” So she went back to college.

She majored in applied math at Arizona State University. “The ways I made money when I was younger was braiding hair and tutoring math,” she says, so she pushed ahead with her studies.

Keep the Faith

If her kids saved her life and are her inspiration to constantly pressure herself to do more, to do better, then her foundation is her faith. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Cheathon considers mathematics to be the intersection of the divine and the mundane. “A person might look at theoretical math and say, ‘Wow, humans are so awesome, we don’t need God!’ But I look at it and think, ‘Wow, God is so awesome!’

“And if you’re right,” she adds, “you can help a lot of people.” Basic life skills, like figuring out a budget for a family or a business, determining if a loan is fair, or the odds on winning a lottery, are all skills that applied mathematicians teach.

Issues of social justice can be likewise approached through math. How are limited resources, like food, water, and housing, most fairly distributed? Empowered with math skills, environmentalists have shown that the neighborhoods of people of color are often at greater risk for toxins and trash than more affluent areas. The concepts of gerrymandering, gentrification, racial profiling, and food deserts—in which low-income neighborhoods often have no access to supermarkets or farmers markets with fresh produce and other nutritious foods—can all be identified and corrected using math.

An appreciation of how other cultures have used applied math can give students a new perspective on the value of diversity. Fractal geometry, for instance, is an ancient and important part of many African architecture and aesthetic systems, while origami is a venerable and entertaining system for visualizing geometrical problems in a hands-on way. Teaching math is thus a kind of activism.

Power to the Teachers

Cheathon is a teaching assistant for calculus classes at Washington State University. “One thing about growing up in church is you learn to deal with a lot of different personalities. And as the preacher’s kid, when all those personalities are at you about this thing or another, you have to handle it like customer service. Everybody wants something, they want your attention, and they want to feel special. Even here, when we’re teaching calculus lab with 30 or so people, you want to reach them. You want to inspire and motivate them.”

But it’s not always easy, she says: “You’re trying to be more exciting than their phones! And then there’re the hecklers. You have to prepare and be able to answer ‘why?’ about three layers deep. Especially as a minority female, you have to be prepared.”

And it turns out that teaching is not unlike storytelling. “You’re part psychologist, counselor, and performer. And each performance is individualized! It’s a dance and they’ll call you out if it’s not a good dance.”

A big fan of documentaries, especially shorter films such as the ones featured on Independent Lens, Cheathon says, “I’ve always liked to write, I love storytelling.”

Hearing Voices

She’s also concerned about whose voice gets heard. As with so many professions, white males dominate filmmaking. She says she has been jotting down ideas for a film about being of mixed race, based not only on her own experience but on those of friends who have lighter skin tones and this “get it from both sides. The stuff I’m interested in doing would be pretty gritty. It’d be about people’s struggles.”

Writing also helps ground her and keep her own struggles in perspective. “It helps de-stress me,” Cheathon says of keeping a journal. And raising two kids as a single mother is definitely a struggle—especially while navigating the world of higher education.

Although she was raised to be self-reliant, she realized that always going it alone was not sustainable. She had a professor at ASU, Dr. Erika Comacho, who was also a single parent in graduate school.

“She told me, ‘Don’t sit there quiet if you need help; say you need help.’”

Burst Your Bubble

Cheathon pauses to reflect, then adds, “It’s easy to be in a white bubble, a black bubble, a Hispanic bubble—but that’s not the way I want to be and it’s not the way I want my kids to be. You have to take people on a case-by-case basis,” Cheathon says.

“If you’re a person of color, you cannot convince yourself that a white person cannot help you. You cannot give up on other people. You’ve got to establish relationships, especially with other single moms.”

Inspired by her children, her faith, and her love of people and their stories, Cheathon is always striving to be more. That’s something she wants to share with other people—through teaching and filmmaking.

“If I can be entertaining, that’d be great,” she says. But the thing she really wants to share is more intangible. It’s that feeling of “I got this!” she says, laughing, delighted at a memory that is like “a splash of cold water on a hot Phoenix day.” It was the discovery that, with a little help from friends, mentors, and her children, “I understand this! And I can explain it to others.”